Monthly Archives: January 2014

The Outward Urge by John Wyndham

One-Sentence plot
A speculative history of five stages of space exploration, each fifty years apart, told through the eyes of five generations of the space-going Troon family.

The Outwrd Urge

The review
I have never made a secret of my love of John Wyndham. He lured me into the world of science fiction, a genre I had previously avoided with unjustified prejudice. I always love his narrative voice and measured tone, his imagination, his characters, and his compelling future-based stories. I particularly loved The Chrysalids and the Midwich Cuckoos, but to be honest I’ve enjoyed all of them. So when my lovely wife tracked down the out-of-print The Outward Urge, I leapt upon it.

To be honest, after all that excitement, I was a bit disappointed. It’s perhaps unfair to review a book I anticipated being so excellent – I feel cheated because it is only good, and hold it against The Outward Urge that it is not another Chrysalids. However, in its own right it is an interesting book. Before the first moon landing, John Wyndham was imagining not just that landing, but landings on Mars, Venus, and the Asteroid Belt. He was imagining the sociopolitical implications, the geopolitical implications, and the personal pull towards the stars – and its consequences. His ideas are ahead of their time, but it’s possible to imagine a world in which they are disturbingly, fascinatingly prophetic. There are a lot of ideas in this little book. What, in my feeling it lacks, is plot and characters. Which is a pretty damning assessment – but I’m making it sound worse than it is.

Of course there are characters – the various members of the Troon family. This book is, ostensibly, their history. But somehow, I didn’t bond with any of them. They felt a bit devoid of personality, a bit interchangeable, a bit lacking in real lives outside their space exploits, save for mentions of their children who will grow up to star in the next chapter. I wondered if it’s because each character only briefly featured in the book but no – my wife gave me Wyndham’s The Seeds of Time for Christmas. In these short stories, the characters were often quite vivid. When the punchline comes at the end of this book, I didn’t even really remember the relevant characters sufficiently to feel excited or intrigued by it.

Similarly the plot – these are five little vignettes, and were apparently published separately, with the final one added as an afterthought to pull it all together. This is quite apparent in the reading of the book. There are frustratingly insufficient links between the vignettes and the last one is therefore rendered a bit confusing – too little too late, an add on rather than a clearly planned twist. There isn’t much of a plot – it’s more a dispassionate recounting of a futuristic history. Which is not what I’d expect of this author.

That said, I love John Wyndham’s writing and imagination. I enjoyed the book. It was very interesting. It was nicely written. I just can’t forgive it for not being The Chrysalids…

The verdict: 3/5 shoes

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Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

One sentence plot
Ifemelu comes of age first in Nigeria, then again in America, where she starts blogging about her experiences and observations of race in America from the perspective of the ‘Non-American Black’.

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The Review
Americanah is a fascinating book in all sorts of ways, though somehow I feel, as a white British person, not absolutely qualified to review it. Or at least, I’d love to incorporate the perspectives of people of various races living in America and Nigeria. This is a book with a lot to say about race, identity and racism, specifically the difference in experience between African Americans and ‘Non-American Blacks’, told through the eyes (and occasional blogs) of our charming protagonist, Ifemelu and to a lesser extent, her high school sweetheart, Obinze. I lack the expertise or personal experience to comment on the accuracy of how it’s presented here, but I’ve never personally seen the subject addressed so thoughtfully. This book is a wonderful combination of delightful characters with lovely narrative voices, a compelling plot, and presents a very interesting insight into some of the nuances of race, culture, and lifestyle in America and Nigeria.

The book jumps around in chronology, but essentially Ifemelu and Obinze grow up happily in Nigeria, with a fascination for America and the UK. With political unrest and university faculty strikes impeding their lives, Ifemelu moves to the US to complete her education, Obinze to the UK afterwards. The book is mostly about the cultural differences they experience, and how they relate to white Americans, African Americans, African expats (including their own family members) and African people who lived abroad and returned to the countries of their birth. And how these are tied up with class and personal identity. This is a complex subject and the author does a beautiful job of weaving it into a charming narrative that isn’t preachy or lecture-y but it still interesting and very informative. I loved both Ifmelu and Obinze as characters. They are perceptive, witty, likable, multi-dimensional and speak their minds. I also really enjoyed the supporting cast of stereotypes and those who contravene them. And I found both the race/social commentary and the descriptions of life in these different places to be fascinating. I know I’m going on about all the worthy issues, but they don’t overwhelm the plot, which skips along and had me hooked. I didn’t really want to go out while reading this book.

So why am I not giving Americanah a perfect 5 rating? Because it doesn’t quite deliver on its promise. Somehow about three quarters of the way through (just about where Ifemelu moves back to Nigeria), the author seems to get distracted with all the social/race commentary and forgets that this isn’t Ifemelu’s observational blog – it’s a novel, a format that comes with certain plot expectations. So what I had grown to trust as a brilliant story sort of lost its momentum and trickled to the end in a dull-ish anticlimax. It left me feeling dissatisfied and disappointed that the author had diminished her sparkling protagonist into a pedestrian love interest. I like a good love story but it felt like Ifemelu somehow was more than just that, that she deserved more from her author.

But despite the ending, this is a book that feels important, and I loved reading it.

The verdict: 4/5 shoes

The War of the Worlds by HG Wells

One sentence plot
A man’s experiences and observations of an invasion from Mars bent on the destruction of humans in Victorian England.

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The review
The first book in my classic sci fi challenge, I quite enjoyed The War of the Worlds. Having somehow not read it or seen any of the adaptations (including the radio play version which reputedly had Americans believing the invasion was really happening and causing national panic…), I didn’t know how it would end, which made for a suspenseful read as these Martians land, construct machinery, and kill everything in their paths.

The story is narrated by a dispassionate, slightly pompous, ‘ordinary’ Englishman observer, akin in style to the narrator in The Hopkins Manuscript, or plenty of the John Wyndhams. This book must be one of the originators of this particular tone of narrator, which seems to permeate much of the sci fi I’ve encountered. However, I must admit I enjoyed the Hopkins Manuscript and the Wyndham narrative voices more. There was something a bit irritating about this man. And like all the other characters in this book, he seemed a bit two dimensional, just playing out his purpose in the plot without evoking personal sympathy or even much interest.

As the book progresses, it feels a bit unusual compared to some of the adventure style sci fi stories encountered today. I wonder whether calling it ‘war of the worlds’ is in fact ironic – as the narrator notes, it’s no more war than the act of humans crushing an anthill. The point of this book is a treatise on Darwinian philosophy – humans may currently be at the top of the food chain, and hold the power in the world – but it only takes a more sophisticated species to emerge for humans to lose all that power we currently have, and be crushed, reduced to a pet, or food supply… If survival of the fittest is true, we shouldn’t assume that humans will always be the fittest. Also, should we think more carefully about how we treat other living things? Intriguing, progressive,and thought provoking ideas. This book was first published in 1898.

Its other unusual point is that there is not some great climactical battle. It doesn’t play out like that at all. Granted this made for a read that was occasionally a bit dull. (This book was not a page turner for me – it took oddly long for me to get through it.) But on the other hand, I really liked this thoughtful, measured approach to the destruction of civilization: rather than dramatics, humans simply have to lie down and concede they are already defeated, and the survivors to consider their few options. All with an occasional wry tone which I enjoyed. I’d have liked to have heard more about what was happening abroad. But in general the conclusion felt quite satisfying. I don’t think this will be my favorite sci fi book of the year, but it’s a classic of great influence on the development of the genre that I’m glad to have read.

The verdict: 3/5 shoes

Light Boxes by Shane Jones

One sentence plot
A fantastical, whimsical fairy tale of a village rebelling against a never-ending winter with an allegorical twist.

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The Review
Ever since I finished this little book I’ve been swithering on my opinion. Was it an inspired, quirky, charming delight of a fable, beautifully rendered? Was it an insipid, self-conscious attempt to be clever and philosophical? Was it an allegorical autobiography of a writer’s depression? A metaphor-ridden study of seasonal affective disorder? A creepy, imagery-rich essay? A magical, whimsical poem? I think it might have been all of these.

The book, written mostly in one-page chapters, with font size and placement taking on particular significance, begs to be read in a single sitting. I obliged, and as I turned the pages the story unfolded: the little town whose inhabitants loved to fly in hot air balloons is trapped in an unremitting winter dubbed ‘February’, which robs them of their flight, their children and their joy in the world. They eventually rebel with all sorts of whimsical methods of defeating ‘February’, who indeed is increasingly personified until, well, I never really understand how to use the latest word in vogue, ‘meta’, but if I did, I suspect it would be an apt adjective here. Until it all becomes a bit meta. Mustn’t give more away. If that’s something you like, great. If it’s annoying, I’m with you.

This book promised a lot. But for all its poetic set-up and moments of beauty, occasional elements were worldly and jarring (how could mentioning myspace have seemed like a good idea?), and as it veered towards its conclusion it became increasingly self-absorbed and prosaic. In my view, be whimsical, or don’t be whimsical – a combination works poorly.

However, I must be fair: this book delivers a lot of its promise. Until I started writing this review, I still hadn’t really decided if I thought it was brilliance or saccharine pomposity. There are elements of both. But I bet the author is feeling very proud of how very clever he is. And looking forward to making money from the perhaps inevitable film version. Which annoys me enough to demote the book to a rating of 3/5. But it’s a short, fascinating read that I think will affect different people in very different ways. So don’t be deterred! This one’s hard to pin down, except to say: unusual.

The verdict: 3/5 shoes

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

One sentence plot
Young New York boy’s mother is killed by an explosion at the Met; he survives, complete with a priceless piece of art, and tries, rudderless, to navigate the rest of his life, which becomes a bit of a thriller.

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The review
I’m not one of these hugely devoted Donna Tartt fans. I enjoyed The Secret History. I didn’t bother with The Little Friend as I didn’t like the sound of it. But almost everyone I know’s been talking about The Goldfinch over the past month or two, so I decided to dig in, and was duly rewarded. The Goldfinch is a real tour de force. The characters are wonderful, the plot is engaging and filled with suspense, and the writing is beautiful. I read this over Christmas and barely spoke to my poor friend til it was done. It was a “Just five more minutes!” scenario. (Though it’s a thick book so that was of course a lie.)

The book follows young Theo, who begins by living a cheery New York life with his beloved mother, united against his feckless and recently absent father, until he and his mother are in the Metropolitan Museum of Art when there is an explosion which kills his mother. Theo makes it out alive, after a short and meaningful discussion with a dying old man, whose words set up much of the rest of the book. Theo finds himself very alone when his mother dies and social services try diligently to find out who might take responsibility for him, valuing official lines of responsibility above suitability. As Theo moves between homes, and the adults responsible for him live out their own issues, the first part of the book is a fascinating study in a child’s agency and lack of agency over their own lives, how people have the potential to be many different things, and what makes a child (or anyone) turn out ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – and what the difference might be. It examines different types of fate. The question of what is good enough parenting is prominent – when Theo’s feckless father is granted custody and transplants him to a desolate Las Vegas suburb, I had such a sinking feeling it was as though I knew them personally. There was a complex, multi-dimensional, perfectly drawn cast of supporting characters whose personal dramas permeate the book. Amidst all this, there were all sorts of interesting details about fine art and furniture restoring. And Theo just tries to make good, motivated throughout by the possession of the eponymous piece of art that acts like an emotional talisman, though also perhaps a curse.

The second half of the book was less to my personal taste as it morphs from coming of age tale to more of an art theft/seedy underworld type thriller. I found this quite stressful, though entirely congruent with the rest of the book. I couldn’t stop reading it though, because by that time, I was more than hooked. Some revelations came as such surprises that I shrieked at one point. The last couple of hundred pages sped by as I grasped beyond the crime thriller to desperately see what would become of Theo and his band of friends. Though I must say the final 5% of the book took on an annoyingly sanctimonious, pseudo-philosophical preachy tone, this book was an absolute must-read. I read a review suggesting it is Dickensian, and I certainly see an Oliver Twist parallel. I think Tartt is extremely talented and I’ll be reading her next book, regardless of the subject.

The verdict: 5/5 shoes

My 2014 book challenge(s)

Happy new year! And with new year comes a new book challenge, of course. I jealously watched my lovely wife devouring 100 books last year, and I wanted in on the fun, to stop missing out on books she raved about, and to do that I must double my reading rate. Yikes.

I also realized I’ve really enjoyed some speculative fiction and sci fi, but have hitherto assumed sci fi is something that is not for me. I’m going to kick through the mental barrier and read some classic sci fi this year.

Finally, I’m conscious that people rave about various non-fiction titles which I never get around to reading. I then feel frustrated at missing the zeitgeist (and not being able to make clever comments at dinner parties). So my 2014 three-part uber-reading challenge awaits:

– Read 100 books

– Of which at least 10 are non-fiction (proper non-fiction literature, not how-to manuals, textbooks, or anything like that!)

– Of which at least 10 are classic sci fi

Here is my bedside table TBR pile awaiting me:

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Ladies and gentlemen, let the reading commence!